Brockhampton’s Latest Album ‘Roadrunner’ Suffers From Multiple Personalities, Not Enough Focus

If reconciling the group’s (often hardcore) hip-hop focus and its self-appointed description as a “boy band” wasn’t difficult enough, Brockhampton’s latest album “Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine” ventures into so many different directions that listeners may find it tough to confidently decide what — and who — it is they’re listening to. A frequently exhilarating but wildly unfocused collection of songs, “Roadrunner” faithfully captures the iconoclastic creativity of its 13 current members as they rattle through enough different sounds to assemble their very own “Now! That’s What I Call Hip-Hop.” But what they possess in versatility they unfortunately lack in cohesion, crafting tracks that fairly could appear on a variety of different charts but don’t fully congeal into a clear or discernible identity for the group in the way that made standard-bearer collectives from Wu-Tang to Odd Future immediately identifiable, much less iconic.

The album opens with “Buzzcut,” a gripping declaration of war on your stereo speakers featuring a menacing, incessant bass line and guest vocals by Danny Brown. Straddling the line between Bay-area collective Hieroglyphics and Dirty South luminaries Dungeon Family, the song rumbles along with a ferocity that immediately command attention — the kind of posse cut that you can see them opening shows with to energize the crowd, and it always, always works. But halfway through the song, the drums peel back and a wash of reverb turns it into something more ethereal; it’s clear that the group has big ambitions, and lots of ideas to fold into its sound, but the song throws down a gauntlet that you want to see them carry through the rest of the record. And the second track, “Chain On,” suggests that they can do it, with a percolating sample and a skeletal beat resembling a lost Madlib instrumental where guest star JPEGMAFIA delivers a blistering verse framed by a chorus from Kevin Abstract.

“Count On Me” slides easily into more syrupy, southern funk, with a beat produced by Jabari Manwa, Video Store, and Queen Sixties, featuring vocals by A$AP Rocky and additional harmonies by Shawn Mendes. Looking at the guest stars on the album, who also include A$AP Ferg and Charlie Wilson, it’s clear they’re not just a group to watch out for, but to work with; but it’s hard to be too confident about their own voices and identities as rappers, much less as a group, with so many others piling on top, and sometimes, intruding. “Bankroll,” featuring both Rocky and Ferg, bounces with the same kind of bass-heavy heat as Rocky’s “All Gold Everything,” and the track fits comfortably alongside the previous ones. But even as Joba turns deeply personal on “The Light,” discussing external pressures and ongoing mental health issues (“When I look at myself I see a broken man / Remnants of my pops, put the glock to his head”), the tone of the record changes — both musically and emotionally; as electric guitar swells underneath him and Kevin Abstract, it becomes more emo-influenced in a way that doesn’t fit with what came before. 

“Windows,” featuring SoGone So Flexy, then meanders down a different path, with a slightly more eerie vibe that would probably be perfect for Ferg and the rest of the A$AP mob. In fact, Merlyn Wood’s verse on the track very deceptively fills in for Ferg, making you wonder why then they actually need a rapper outside the group to bring a quality they already possess? Jabari Manwa jumps on the track after a verse by Matt Champion, lending that kind of vocoded soul that Kanye West make a cornerstone of his style on “The Life of Pablo,” now an industry standard; they clearly have reserves of talent, but they just don’t quite know how best to form them into a musical Voltron. Of course, West has also worked frequently with Charlie Wilson, but Brockhampton’s collaboration with him is decidedly poppier than anything West has done, and they really live up to their “boy band” designation” with a song that is so slick and overproduced it slides off your eardrums before it can leave a lasting impression.

Ultimately, their chameleonic sound becomes a vice rather than a virtue: “What’s The Occasion” plays like a lesser Kid Cudi track; “When I Ball,” co-produced by Chad Hugo (the other half of Neptunes, with Pharrell Williams), is a lilting Lupe Fiasco cut; and “Don’t Shoot Up The Party,” produced by Joba, Video Store (Kevin Abstract and Romil Hemnani), Jabara Manwa and Goldwash, sounds a bit like a track from Kanye’s “Yeezus” if he capitulated slightly towards the radio. And then there’s “Dear Lord,” featuring Bearface and Boylife, a song stripped from Frank Ocean’s playbook with a little Chance the Rapper thrown in for a bit of spiritual uplift. In fact, it’s such a melodic copycat that Ocean might have real grounds to sue. 

The group closes with “The Light Pt. II,” another introspective track where Abstract and Joba talk about concerns both personal (“What type of man can find the right time to fly in / Especially when my cousin dyin’”) and political (“Sick of these niggas givin’ me false info / Like I ain’t grow up on MTV, Boondocks and the Chappelle Show”) before arriving at a hopeful coda (“The light is worth the wait, I promise”). Their emphasis on real topics is engaging, substantive, and more than that, admirable; it certainly distinguishes them from a landscape of rap artists occupying the charts without anything to say. But despite having so much talent, and so many members to piece together their songs, Brockhampton still hasn’t found the right vehicle to communicate who it is as a group. “Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine” is a frequently terrific spotlight for individual artists, or creative impulses they may want to explore, but for the group to move forward, albums like these need to be a better collective showcase.

Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine” releases April 9 on Apple Music.